Know thy enemy: Understanding China’s worldview

Why does Beijing seemingly ignore shared understandings of state sovereignty and territorial claims?

With the rise of China have come questions surrounding the intentions of the Dragon. As Beijing becomes more assertive in the South China Sea, many question whether China’s foreign policy is compatible with the rules-based international order. Why does Beijing seemingly ignore shared understandings of state sovereignty and territorial claims? Our current order is defined by Westphalian sovereignty, which stresses mutual recognition of territorial inviolability as granted by international law. Sun Tzu famously warned to ‘know thy enemy’. Whilst Beijing continues to heed this warning today, paying close attention to Western worldviews and values, the West has yet to fully appreciate what motivates Beijing in the long term. To understand Beijing’s foreign policy goals in the South China Sea and beyond, making sense of China’s worldview is imperative. Beijing is currently fluttering between Tianxia and Westphalia, taking a multi-frontal approach to its foreign policy.

‘Tianxia’ is a millennia-old Sino concept which supersedes state borders in favour of ‘All under Heaven’. Tianxia is rarely discussed by western policymakers, however the concept guided China’s foreign policy for centuries. All persons in the world are placed in the same community, with China placed squarely as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, uplifting and inspiring the rest of humanity. Under Tianxia, it is unclear where the boundaries of ‘China’ lie. Tianxia doesn’t only speak to a lack of borders but places China as the heartbeat of global cultural, political and economic values. This arrangement framed how ancient and imperial China viewed its position in the world. Even when China’s power waned in the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese elites pushed for the nation to reassert itself as the Middle Kingdom – known as ‘Zhongguo’. With the fall of the Chinese empire and the advent of Westphalian state sovereignty, the plausibility of Tianxia and its grip on policymakers ostensibly loosened.

There is no doubt that today, Beijing laments the collapse of China’s power and prestige on the world stage. Today, Xi seeks to rejuvenate China’s influence and centrality in international affairs. The question lies in whether this aspiration is compatible with our current order. Under traditional Tianxia, all nations share a common fate. Tianxia underscores oneness and emphasises ‘world interests’ and ‘world rights’, railing against the current ordering principle of state interests and rights. Xi operates under a modernised version of Tianxia, stressing his aspiration of a ‘Common destiny for mankind’. Upon taking office, Xi emphasised the shared future of the international community. Jiechi, a prominent Chinese diplomat, underscored that ‘building a community of common destiny for mankind is the overall goal of China’s foreign affairs work in the new era’. Far from appearing as a new era, these statements feel like deja vu for historians.

Turning to the South China Sea, traditional Tianxia treats land and oceans as the ‘current property of all’. This may, in part, explain China’s ambivalence towards UNCLOS, which it views as an arbitrary measure of rights. Indeed, China’s maritime claims date back to as early as the 20th century, preceding UNCLOS. Beijing views the area as its rightful sphere of influence. Tianxia, when read at face value, is fundamentally incompatible with the current world order, whereby territorial rights are divided and granted by international law. Whilst western analysts are bound to examine the world through the lens of international law and Westphalian sovereignty – equal sovereignty amongst nations – Tianxia is thousands of years older. To understand China’s perspective, we must grapple with these historical ideas.

Another factor to keep in mind is the strategic importance of the South China Sea. The waters are home to 10% of global annual fisheries catch, and an estimated 28-105 billion barrels of oil and 5-5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath the seabed. They are thus highly significant for any ASEAN state seeking to prosper economically. Moreover, a third of global maritime trade transits through these waters. These waters are therefore vital for international prosperity, and both Beijing and Washington view each other as irresponsible policemen of this strategic area. It is thus also possible that the Dragon’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is motivated by strategic interests. Beijing’s worldview and strategic interests are not mutually exclusive; both certainly play a role in its foreign policy calculations.

Yet, outside of the South China Sea, China presents itself as the ultimate defender of state sovereignty and multilateralism. This strikes many as puzzling. In essence, China is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to international relations, defending sovereignty only when it benefits itself. Having risen within the parameters of the current international order, Beijing is careful not to overturn it prematurely. Though it has amassed significant economic power, China remains a highly insecure nation. As an authoritarian state, its primary goal remains the survival of the CCP. Accordingly, Beijing fears political subversion and Western encroachment into what it sees as its sphere of influence and pursuit of greatness. Indeed, in 2017, Xi unveiled the guiding principles of China’s vision of the common destiny for humankind. One of the primary principles was, perhaps surprisingly, sovereignty among nations. In fear of Western encroachment, Beijing stresses non-interference – sovereign states should be able to make and unmake their domestic societies as they see fit. A second principle was a move from ‘hegemonism of one country’ to

‘joint governance’ in international organisations. No prizes for guessing which country Beijing is referencing here. With growing fears that the US is pursuing a strategy of containment against China, Beijing has deepened its relations with developing states and repeatedly called for ‘true multilateralism’ to govern international relations. These two principles work in tandem to paint the picture of an insecure nation, not yet poised or willing to reinstate Tianxia as it seeks to regain its status.

Today, China’s grand strategy straddles between Tianxia and Westphalia. We must not assume its foreign policy will be coherent; indeed, within Beijing, competing ideas exist on where the power should take its strategy. For now, Beijing wants to have its cake and eat it. It intends to expand its dominance in the South China Sea and reassert the state’s rightful place in the world, thereby taking parts of neighbouring states’ territories, whilst also defending ‘hard’ state sovereignty in fear of Western political subversion. After all, having significantly benefited from engaging with the international community and its cornerstone organisations, why undermine all of it? Like other great powers, the Dragon wants to pick which rules to follow in accordance with its goal of amassing power. Yet it goes without saying that, unlike Western powers, some of the rules it disregards are precisely the ones underpinning the logic of the international order. That is, territorial integrity. If Western policymakers want to understand what motivates the Dragon, they must understand the ideas competing for primacy in Beijing, some of which are 2,000 years old.

Eleonora Guaschi
Eleonora Guaschi
Eleonora Guaschi is a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge and a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own